Social realism is delivered with an impressively tough edge in “Old Beast,” a compelling portrait of a selfish father whose reprehensible behavior drives his adult children to take drastic action. Set in a corner of Ordos, a boom-bust city in Inner Mongolia where clusters of apartment blocks remain largely unoccupied, this first feature written and directed by Ordos native Zhou Ziyang sports a terrific central performance by veteran Tu Men (“A Simple Goodbye”) and offers pungent commentary on the extensive damage to social cohesion when economic development programs don’t deliver the projected results. Produced by admired Chinese director Wang Xiaoshuai (“In Love We Trust”, “Red Amnesia”), this broadly accessible tale should enjoy a lengthy festival life and have regional art-house prospects. Domestic release details are yet to be announced.
A one-time restaurateur and investor who lost everything when the Ordos real estate market tanked, 60-ish Lao Yang (Tu) hustles around town playing mah-jong and acting like the big shot he once was. In the film’s opening act, Lao runs into Lu (Alatengwula), a poor farmer with a sick camel. Offering to mind the beast for his old pal, Lao instead sells the animal to a butcher and uses the proceeds to buy gifts for his mistress, Lili (Wang Zizi).
That’s just the beginning of Lao’s character flaws. His most severe shortcoming is a heartless disregard for his gravely ill wife (Hao Qiaoling). Instead of looking after her, Lao sneaks out like a thief in the night to feed his gambling addiction and visit a seedy “health spa.” When his wife is taken to the hospital and 30,000 yuan (about $4,500) is required for surgery, Lao steals the money his children have raised and uses part of it to buy a cheap cow to replace Lu’s camel.
Zhou’s incisive screenplay shows how the economic downturn in Ordos has affected the next generation. Lao’s son, Bing (Wang Chaobei) and wife Lixia (Yi Danna) squabble over money and must work long hours just to stay afloat. Daughter Mei (Wang Mingshuo) and her hubby, Liang (Su Feng), are heavily in debt and frightened that Lao’s shameful actions will bring the family into disrepute and cost Liang his shot at a much-needed job promotion. It seems everyone in Ordos banked on promises of prosperity when the city’s modernization began more than a decade ago, and all have lost out. The only child doing well is youngest daughter Qin (Sun Jiaqin), who lives far away but close enough for Lao to land on her doorstep and start cadging.
Drawing on events that took place within his own extended family, Zhou places Lao in the middle of an intervention by his infuriated children. After forcing him to sign a good behavior contract, they tie him up and throw him in a cellar. In the aftermath, he sues them, with jail sentences looking likely for Bing and Liang. “Lock them up for a few years for all I care,” he says.
Lao is an unrepentant monster, but shows just enough tiny flickers of humanity to keep audiences wondering if he’s going to change his ways. To his great credit, Zhou avoids the easy way out and doesn’t send Lao on a phony feel-good transformation. With the help of Tu’s perfectly calibrated performance, Zhou brings the tale to a conclusion that’s as tough and honest as it must be.
First-time feature DP Mathias Dalvaux excels with arresting compositions in interior scenes and striking wide shots of virtually empty six-lane roads surrounding half-finished tower blocks in a place that was supposed to showcase the Chinese economic miracle, but more closely resembles the setting of a post-apocalyptic sci-fi film such as “I Am Legend.” A haunting guitar-based score by composer Song Yuzhe completes the somber picture. All other technical aspects are on the money.